The Passing of Paula Bidwell (1953–2016): “her illumined soul”

The staff of the Wilmette Institute was stunned and profoundly grieved by the passing of Paula Bidwell on Saturday, September 17, 2016. She was born on January 28, 1953 in Celina, Ohio. She was laid to rest on the Fort Hall Reservation near Pocatello, Idaho, on September 21 after a Bahá’í/traditional ceremony.

Paula was a rare soul, very talented, a clear thinker, wise, and brilliantly artistic. She was passionate about causes and compassionate toward people. She was self-sacrificing, humble, and uncomplaining about her declining health or the difficulties they were causing her. Paula was a traditional Native American woman, who was very engaged in explaining her culture and traditions to others. She was fascinated with the problems of translating terms and metaphors in the Bahá’í scriptures into terms and metaphors in her traditional religion. For example, for the Lakota people, wolves are a very positive symbol, but the Bahá’í writings draw on the negative images of wolves that farming and animal-herding peoples had. That was one of the many differences that fascinated her and stimulated her thinking about how to make Bahá’í ideas and metaphors “work” in native languages.

The Wilmette Institute played an important role in her life as a learner and later as a faculty member. She collaborated with Dr. Christopher Buck to create a course called Two Peacemakers: Bahá’u’lláh and Deganawida, Deganawida being a prophetic figure who united the Haudenosaunee/Iroquois people many centuries ago. She then pioneered the effort to create the course Native American Religion and Spirituality, a course the Wilmette Institute is determined to continue in her absence. The course was a profound (and sometimes disturbing) eye-opener for many people because one cannot understand or appreciate the religious experience of Native Americans without grasping the impact of genocide on their cultures, tribes, families, and persons. Paula navigated the enormous emotional and spiritual difficulties and pain that approach could create with great compassion, respect, and honor for all participants. Her legacy to the Wilmette Institute is the creation of an ongoing commitment to include Native American courses, faculty, and learners in its educational efforts.

The Wilmette Institute also served as the medium through which she met her Irish husband, Brian, in an online course on the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. The Institute extends its condolences and prayers to Brian, to Paula’s entire family, and to her many admirers who are missing her profoundly.

In terms of the details of her life, Paula, in her personal profile in the Wilmette Institute’s course-management system, provided a summary of the facets of her life that she considered important. The Wilmette Institute staff has taken the liberty of updating it:

Paula Bidwell was a Native American Bahá’í of mixed-Indian blood—Lakota, Cherokee, Shawnee, Delaware, and Seneca—with some Northern Italian from her mother. As a young woman she was trained in the ceremonies and traditions of the Lakota specific to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. In 1999, after many years of practicing these ceremonies and traditions, she declared her commitment to and belief in the Message of Bahá’u’lláh. This came about as the result of a vision of Native traditions progressing into the future through His Message. Her interests pertained to her initial vision of Native traditions and progressive revelation. She was married to Brian O’Flanagan. They lived in Pocatello, Idaho, for a number of years.

Paula’s special interests include these:

Native Messengers of God: Paula felt strongly about the importance of recognizing that no people have been bereft of Manifestations or Messengers of God, for without that underlying premise one cannot explain progressive revelation to Native/Indigenous people if they have no sense of the coming of other Messengers. Her first endeavor in the area of progressive revelation was a paper titled “Many Messengers of God—A Native American Perspective—Deganawida the Peacemaker.” She wrote it for a final project in a Wilmette Institute course and presented it in 2011at the ‘Irfán Colloquium held at Louhelen Bahá’í School . Her paper is available at: http://bahai-library.com/bidwell_many_messengers.

Story Telling: Paula was developing a method of presenting the Bahá’í writings for a universal audience through an advanced form of Native storytelling that can be used to demonstrate and explain some of the more complex and mystical aspects of the writings. Her first endeavor was titled “Clouds of Jabarút—Mountain of Malakút,” a drawing for a Wilmette Institute course. It is, she said “a piece of art as a method of transition and combination between oral and written tradition.” It was published along with her other papers at https://independent.academia.edu/PaulaBidwell.

History: For the past twelve years Paula had been researching and recording the history of early Native American Bahá’ís in the United States from 1910 through1970. At the following website, one can view some of this history and also contact current Native Bahá’ís for further information on the Faith at http://www.nativebahais.com.

Reconciliation: Paula also developed a project called “Many Hoops” with her friend from several Wilmette Institute courses, Lea Gerlach, a descendant for American pilgrims. Together Paula and Lea created the project and website as an individual initiative designed to help correct the stereotyping, misinformation, miseducation, and controversy about the U.S. national holiday called “Thanksgiving.” The controversy is about the fact that, while most Americans “celebrate” the day as a holiday, many Native Americans and others call it a “Day of Mourning.” Lea focused on the humanity of the original participants, both Native and Pilgrim, and both, the Indian and the pilgrim descendant, sought healing in very personal ways. Many Hoops is also a call to action to those of us participating in the current version of the Thanksgiving, urging us to find a more spiritual and just way for commemorating Indigenous and all people sharing a mutual land base. The website address for the Many Hoops project is http://www.manyhoops.com.

On learning about Paula’s passing from one of her friends, the supreme governing body of the Bahá’ís, the Universal House of Justice, through its Department of the Secretariat, emailed the following on September 25, 2016:

The Universal House of Justice was sorry to learn from your email letter of 22 September 2016 of the passing of Paula Bidwell and extends to you its loving sympathy for the loss of a dear friend. May her dedicated efforts in serving humanity be a source of inspiration to all who knew her. Rest assured of the supplications of the House of Justice at the Sacred Threshold for the progress of her illumined soul in the Abhá Kingdom. Prayers will also be offered for your consolation and for the solace of the hearts of her husband, Brian, daughter, Creon, and other family members and loved ones at this time of bereavement.

The Wilmette Institute has received from many of its learners and faculty reminiscences about what Paula meant to them, even though they had not met actually met her.

“She helped, along with the rest of our study group, and set me on my path. I did not know Paula long, but her words and vision have been very influential to me in finding how I could serve humanity. I will miss her and will pray for her in all the medicine lodges that I attend.”—Harold E. Gibson, Downers Grove, Illinois

“Crying reading this so sorry. . . . Paula is a great soul and will be loved by God and the angels now that she is back home again in the Abhá Kingdom. I learned so much from the course and mention it all the time to people I meet. One thing I want everyone to know is that the Native American Religion and Spirituality course has been helping me to remember parts about myself that I lost and forgot about many years ago. Since I was young, I cared about Native Rights, but it is a daily fight and struggle to give honor to this way of thinking and living in the materialistic and male-dominated world in which we live. This course has reawakened in me the absolute and profound need to bring these issues to the forefront of my life. Racism and sexism are so prevalent in our world today. Paula has helped me reconnect the importance of these ideals of race unity and gender equality to my mind and heart. I wanted to say thanks for all she has done. Paula,  you are a great warrior of truth!  Mitakuye Oyasin—We are all Related.”—Caryn Gayfield, Long Beach, Washington

“Paula was a true warrior and will receive her rewards in the Abhá Kingdom, but we still here will feel deprived of her energy, wisdom, and tenacity. How long she has battled! I was waiting for the updates to her course(s) with great anticipation, because I know she had so much more to give, even if it wouldn’t fit within a single session. It is a great loss, but I’m lifted to think how much more powerful she is working from the Concourse!”—Cheryll Schuette, Morro Bay, California

“I am deeply saddened by Paula’s passing. I became acquainted with Paula during the last Native American Religion and Spirituality course and was in contact with her since. Her devotion to her Native culture and heritage knew no bounds. She opened my heart and eyes with her knowledge and genuine sincerity.—Basil Shaw, Tonsberg, Norway

“The Thunder Beings speak as I write this, as the sky is crying. I am grateful to the Creator, for sending us such a beautiful gift. The first I ever heard of Paula, I saw her Native American Bahá’í shield. What an inspiration she has been for not only me but for so many. The Native American Bahá’í Community has gained so much strength from her. The wealth of knowledge she had acquired, painstakingly, and shared with others, is not to be taken lightly. You see, the path of an Ogitchiidaa-ikwe (Warrior Woman) is extremely difficult. She willingly shared with everyone, with such great compassion and strength. What a loss to our community, such sadness. Thank you, beautiful sister for all the sacrifices you made so that we could gain strength. Such dignity and strength are the exquisite virtues I will remember of her. Binesii-ikwe and Mini-aakon-maanaa-win.”—June Blue, St. Paul, Minnesota

“I only knew her through the course on Native American Religion and Spirituality. I was so inspired by her deep understanding of the spiritual principles of the Bahá’í Faith and how they were so closely attuned to the spiritual principles imbedded in so many of the Native traditions.  I learned so much from her, her love and compassion always shone through her comments. She helped me see my European culture in a whole new light, and to understand how it had colored my outlook in subconscious, limiting ways. I am so grateful to her for presenting such profound insights that now make me feel that I can be more of a world citizen, sensitive to cultural differences and our essential oneness.”—Linda Gillette, Fredonia, New York

Our dear teacher has passed to the realms of light. She has given us vision, opened our hearts and our minds. We will honor her with our teaching work, with firesides and with a renewed dedication.—Anne Grove, Washington, Washington

“I’m very sorry to learn of Paula’s passing. I ‘met’ her online through her wonderful Native American Religion and Spirituality course (which I was following), and she was a discussant on the Preparing for Interfaith Dialogue course. Her deep wisdom and spirituality, drawn from her Native American heritage and life, brought a new dimension (for me, at least) to the understanding of spirituality and religion. It also opened doors of learning to this European, woefully ignorant as I was of the history of the Native American peoples. I am sad never to have met this great soul face-to-face and will offer prayers for her soul to soar in all the world’s of God.—Barney Leith, Welwyn, Hertsfordshire, U.K.

“Paula was a fantastic teacher and compassionate woman as well as an ardent teacher of Native American ways and culture. I never met her in person but enjoyed her website, and we had several very good emails back and forth. I felt her spirit of love and commitment not only to the Bahá’í Faith but all people. My condolences to the Institute and to her family and friends.”—Verne Larson, Knoxville, Tennessee

“My wife Luz Marina and I have been heavy with grief since we learned at 3:00 a.m. Monday of Paula’s passing on Saturday night. I was about to go to bed when I saw a Facebook post with a photo of her beautiful face that said, ‘RIP Paula Bidwell. Now you will no longer be in pain.’ My immediate response was to pray for her, but before the first word could come out, I was engulfed in profound sobs for the loss in this world of a dear friend and great spiritual warrior. My wife consoled me in bed until suddenly I felt Paula’s ample spirit in the room with us, which totally calmed me. In the morning my wife told me that Paula came to her in a dream, just checking to make sure that I was okay. Just like Paula to be concerned, during the most important transition of her life, about the welfare of someone else. Luz Marina commented that Paula had a profound wisdom that she increasingly grew to appreciate and admire through what I shared with her from my participation in the courses.

“I have known Paula for slightly over a year since a couple months before The Two Peacemakers: Bahá’u’lláh and Deganawida course began. During the Peacemakers course and the Native American Religion and Spirituality course that followed, I have been so profoundly transformed that this experience ranks at or near the top with the major transformative events in my life. I attribute this to Paula’s vision, determination, dedication, love, and gratitude. How visionary she was to meld her spiritual understanding and love for Bahá’u’lláh with her commitment to her culture and spiritual ways, and to communicate that expression of union in such a deep and practical way that it could bring together both Native and non-Native participants in such spiritual communication of love, exploration, and understanding. As a result of her work, I know in the deepest core of my being the Divine origin of the spirituality of the world’s indigenous peoples. I feel all of my Native brothers and sisters as my own relatives.”—Wesley Dyring, Lynnwood, Washington

“I have said prayers for Paula this morning. The one with the line “This dearly cherished maidservant” seemed to fit so beautifully. I thought about the lives she touched, enlightened, and encouraged with the first course she offered to us (The Two Peacemakers: Bahá’u’lláh and Deganawida). She worked so tirelessly to answer everyone’s questions and responses with such care and compassion. We can only imagine her impact on everyone she knew on this earth and maybe catch a glimpse of the lasting effect her efforts will have in the future. She was and will continue to be, truly, an inspiration to all of us!”—Rondelle Ruggiero, North Scituate, Rhode Island

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